Would you let your newborn baby drink the breast milk of another woman? What if that milk might help save your baby’s life? As new breast milk banks open across the United States and Canada, donated milk may become a more popular option for premature or distressed babies in need of this precious commodity.
Babies need breast milk
According to the president of the Human Milk Banking Association of America, “Breast milk contains important nutrients, immune-system antibodies and growth factors that all contribute to a baby’s health, particularly babies who are vulnerable because they are premature or underweight.”
My own twins were born more than a month premature, and needed the benefits of breast milk, but it wasn’t easy, even with pumping, for me to quickly establish enough of a milk supply to feed them both. So the doctor recommended that we supplement from the beginning with formula.
Many mothers have trouble establishing an adequate milk supply, or are unable to breast feed for a number of reasons. But formula is not always an acceptable substitute for breast milk. Some babies are unable to digest formula, or have allergies to its ingredients. For these babies, donated breast milk may be the key to survival.
How breast milk banks work
Generations ago, it wasn’t so uncommon for women who were unable or unwilling to breastfeed their babies to employ a wet nurse to feed them directly from the breast. Today’s version of donated breast milk generally involves donated milk obtained by pumping, which is screened for contaminants and diseases, pasteurized and frozen.
Breast milk banks today are considerably safer than they were a few decades ago, thanks to screening processes that eliminate not only dangerous bacteria like salmonella, but also milk from donors with hepatitis or HIV from the supply.
To obtain donated breast milk from one of these banks, the recipient baby needs a prescription from their doctor. Because supplies are limited, priority is given to premature infants and those who have a serious medical need.
Online supplies not as safe
Moms who are unable to produce enough milk for their baby may be tempted to seek out donors or milk for sale online, or even among friends and family members who are nursing and have built up an excess supply in their freezer. According to recent research, though, breast milk bought and sold online may often be tainted.
Bacteria like salmonella can be deadly, as can viruses like HIV, and there is no way to guarantee that the milk you are getting from an online donor is safe. If you feel your child needs more breast milk than you can provide, please talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of supplementing with unpasteurized, unscreened donated milk as opposed to formula.
More by Tavia:
Avoid Malnutrition During Pregnancy
Letting Go of Preemie Guilt
I Regret Not Choosing a Hospital-Grade Breast Pump